Mom Approaches El Cruz de Ferro — the Iron Cross of Letting Go

Rabanal to El Acebo: Little Switzerland

I love the smell of cowshit, at altitude, in the morning. I’m not being glib here. It’s earthy and real, but most of all it reminds me of many of the happiest times in my life, at my uncle’s hotel-restaurant in Braunwald, Switzerland. The mountains between Rabanal and El Acebo, across a narrow valley, were shorter and below treeline, but somewhat reminiscent of Braunwald, one of my favorite places on earth. For nearly the entire day, we would walk high up on the other side of the valley ourselves, for long stretches on the ridge line.

More modern windmills on the ridges of mountains in the distance. Cold. I have on three layers, Icebreaker wool 200 weight and 320 weight, which I ski in, and a light windbreaker. Light wool gloves and a skullcap. Only my toes are cold, in spite of the five-toed wool socks. When you separate toes, as with fingers, you lose heat.

We stopped near the top of a ridge to watch the sunrise, a brilliant orange orb sending its warm light over the cold landscape. Mom was wearing a white scarf over her head. For most of the rest of the day, I would walk behind her, imagining myself supporting her, willing her upward.

We stopped in Foncebaden for Second Breakfast. It’s one of my favorite times of the day, Second Breakfast. Foncebaden itself is crumbling down. Of the few stone homes, about half are abandoned, their roofs stove in, the rocks in their walls straining to fall out like an old man’s teeth. I found out later that the albergue in Foncebadon offered – wait for it – a yoga class in the mornings.

As we walked, I asked Mom if she wanted me to dial up Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” for her on my iPod when we reached the cross.

“No,” she said. “I’m going to be emotional enough. I’ve got all sorts of emotions going on.”

“Such as?”

“Well, first, I’m just grateful I’m here. It still boggles my mind. And I feel hope. I see that tumor just hanging by a thread, and maybe when we reach the cross it’ll just fall off. All the research I’ve done says fresh air is very important in curing cancer. And exercise. We’re getting a lot of that. And no sugar. I should have already starved it by now. But I’m trying not to have expectations. Just drop the analysis and let it be. And then sometimes I get a frog that comes and sits in my throat. He’s there so often that I’ve given him a name.”

Carrie and I waited for the name. Mom was climbing, huffing.

“Well?” I said. “The name?”

“Timothy,” she said. Carrie and I laughed. We kept going up, scanning the horizon for a tall cross, the Cruz de Ferro.

Carrie was now up ahead. Mom went on. “I’m also thinking of all those who’ve passed. I think of Candy, that she has the courage to make a happy life for herself. I pray Brianna will find her way. For Kaleb to continue on his great path, but whatever he does is okay.” She walked some more, still going uphill on the rocky single-track trail. “For you, to have peace and contentment and be able to let go of anything from childhood that may still be with you.”

I sang to her a bit of sing-song that she used to sing to me in the car when I was a boy, when we drove with my grandparents through Germany and Austria on the seemingly endless trip to my uncle’s hotel-restaurant in Switzerland. “We’re almost there, we’re almost there.”

She nodded. “Schiab’st a bissl’, schiab’st a bissl’”. This was my grandmother’s Nieder-Bayerisch for “push a li’l”. “Oma’s here,” she said. “That came right into my head.”

“She’s been here all along.”

“Yes, she has. They’re all lining up now, all of them from the past.”

Scrub oak, yellowing, growing brown. The trees are short as far as the eye can see, a sign of harsh winters. Some pilgrims say they’ve heard it can snow here in summer. An Italian couple walks ahead of us. Heather lines the path, some of it already dying. My toes are still cold. My nose is running, sprinting, hurdling, as I once did not so long ago, and in the far-away past.

The path goes all the way up. It’s all single-track now, and rocky. We are gaining 1000 feet in 5 miles. “I’m going to have a heart-attack before I even get to that stupid cross,” Mom said.

I’m suddenly struck by the thought, What will I leave behind? I hadn’t bothered to think about it. I didn’t even bring a stone, or anything else, from home. I have had some thoughts come into my head. Is there anything remaining from my marriage or divorce? Any regrets, guilt, resentments? Should I let go of the fear of committing myself to writing, and all that implies? I walk on without having decided anything. I had a few more kilometers. Maybe something would come to me.

Suddenly we saw it. About two hundred yards ahead. The cross was made of a 25-foot tall wooden beam with cross-beam and stood atop a 15-foot pile of rocks. I had read that the original pile was created by Pagans. Just as many churches were converted from or built on top of Pagan temples, the Christian symbolism here was built on the rubble of Pagan religion.

More than a dozen brightly-colored pilgrims milled about the rock pile. I could see them

Up ahead, the Cruz de Ferro

posing for pictures. A handful of bikes were parked next to the pile. My heart sank. This was the space we would try to make sacred? But Mom was forging ahead, walking toward the cross as if pulled by a magnet.

“I Want to Go to that Cross and Leave My Cancer Behind”

The Energy Meridians of Mother Earth

I had heard people say that the Camino runs along on one of earth’s energy meridians, also called ley lines. I’d heard that in pre-Roman times, people of the Pagan religions, and, later, Christian mystics, walked the Camino route from Santiago to Leon, and which in its entirety, as it covers seven sacred sites corresponding to the seven chakras of the human body, is called the Celtic Camino.

The ley lines of the earth are said to correspond to the energy meridians of the human body, as in Chinese medicine. Throughout the world, indigenous peoples have viewed the earth as a holographic representation of the human form. The great travel writer Bruce Chatwin described the connection between the Australian Aboriginal people and the land they walked, and sang out loud — in a wonderful book called The Songlines. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, speaking of the Aborigines, said “The land is a living book in which the myths are inscribed . . . A legend is captured in the very outlines of the landscape.”

The Camino is also said to perfectly parallel the Milky Way, and some people believe that by following a path so powerfully charged with energy, a person is more likely to have intensely spiritual or religious experiences. One etymology of the name “Compostela” argues that it comes from Latin campus stellae, “field of the stars”.

Does this refer to the Milky Way, or to the belief that the bones of St. James made their way to Santiago from Israel (in a boat, in seven days) and were found when a shepherd spotted a star and somehow deduced that the star, billions of light years away, hung in the sky over a specific spot — the spot where the bones were interred and where the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela now stands?  If you are able to replicate this feat at home, please leave a comment in the Comments section.*

I picture a line of druids solemnly walking the same path, oak staffs in hand, white-haired and regal like Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings”, to Finisterre, literally “end of land”, or what was then believed to be the end of the known world.  But the Celtic Camino actually runs from west to east and back again: it stretches from Santiago – its start, in the first chakra – to Leon, Spain and Toulouse, France, and finally to Rosslyn, Scotland. Even today, some people walk this route, which has them walking against the current of the Camino de Santiago pilgrims.

Some people believe that the tomb that allegedly contains St. James’ bones (again, a dubious claim) does not, in fact, house the remains of Saint James, but of a pagan priestess, and that the Catholic Church, as it so often did with Pagan churches, symbolism (e.g., the fish symbol, Christmas in place of the winter solstice, the god-man born of a virgin and a god) and rituals, took advantage of the pre-existing meaning assigned to the Camino to spread Christianity as far and wide as possible. Yet another theory holds that if there are any remains on the spot, they belong to Priscillian, an ascetic from Avila who was beheaded by the Church as a heretic in Treves, France, in 385 CE, but who was venerated as a martyr in Galicia and other parts of northern Spain.

Here’s what I found on a website discussing the matter of energy:

As we walk and travel along this sacred path, we offer a healing to heal the split for Mother Earth, as we simultaneously heal our own split. We walk up Her chakras, and as we do, we offer our healing, our light and love to ourselves, and to the Earth along this powerful meridian of energy.

And this author quotes another, one Peter Dawkins, who says:

A certain pilgrim's footprint

A true pilgrim who pilgrimages in love leaves footprints of light. Many pilgrims leave many such footprints, and a well-walked pilgrims’ way can become a path of light. There are multitudes of pilgrimage routes crossing the earth, with thousands of people pilgrimaging them every year.

On the other hand, “Some of these meridians are polluted with . . . negative vibrational toxins such as battles, massacres, and the like. These vibrations are stored in the records of the land itself” – much as illness may be viewed as the storage of negative emotional energy – “reflecting back to its inhabitants and causing serious illness . . .”

If the history of the Camino tells us anything, it is that war was nearly continuous along it. Christians fought Christians, Moors and Saracens fought Christians, Christians persecuted Jews, and so on, ad nauseam. For most of the history of Spain, these wars were more about land and strategic advantage than religion. The Camino runs through an energetic wasteland of battles and massacres.

“Fortunately,” according to the same source, “these currents respond positively to spiritual impression.” And here we come back to the pilgrims, who walk it with prayers, mantras, and good faith in their hearts and minds. Once again, a practice that was originally Pagan has been superseded by Christian symbolism. Instead of walking along one of the great planet’s lines of energy, pilgrims redefined their seeking in a new narrative, a new storyline: We are seeking the legendary bones of St. James the Apostle.

The Human Scale

Mom said she’s been visualizing the energy blasting through her tumor. I’ve been told by more than a few people that my energy is palpable and can be felt in whatever part of a person’s body I direct it. I don’t know what to think of this, but I make a Cartesian wager when I place my hand on Mom’s lower back and visualize blocked energy getting unblocked, or see light and love flowing into her: there’s no penalty for being wrong, but what if it works?

Like the Catholics who would come later, Pagans often placed altars and other symbolism on the tops of mountains. Thus was the current site of the Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross, originally the site of a Pagan monument. It sits on the highest (or second-highest) point on the Camino.

The Cruz de Ferro, by tradition, is the place where pilgrims leave something behind. The place where they agree to let go of something. For months now, Mom has said, “I’m going to leave my cancer behind!” She has duly brought a stone, from home, and a paper copy of her PET scan with the third and last tumor circled in red.

And all of this has me worried.



* Another etymology is compositum, “the well founded”, or composita tella, meaning “burial ground”.